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Field Service Technicians Go Mobile

By Heather Angus-Lee

Go MobileDay-to-day tasks look a whole lot different lately for more than two dozen field service technicians working out of the Cincinnati, OH, location of leading equipment distributor, Equipment Depot. They are using ruggedized tablets that connect them directly to their company’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) business software system via a mobile device interface called MobileFrame, which lets them do paperless PM work orders and regular-fix work orders.

The benefits, says Equipment Depot’s Keith Hauptmann, project lead of the Mobile Frame integration, have included expedited processes such as less time needed to post, faster parts replenishment, reduced travel time and, on the A/R side, “rather than being inundated with mounds of paperwork and waiting for someone to post it at end of month, it happens as close to real time as possible.”

“The other day, the operations manager said it was a beautiful thing: a field technician finished his work at the customer site, his manager approved the work, and the invoice was out the door to the customer – all on the same day!”

Another 35 field technicians are queued up to go mobile at another of Equipment Depot’s five operating companies, and then it’s off to roll out the technology, and hand out the Windows 7 tablets and training to techs, at the remaining companies.

Hauptmann said Equipment Depot expects to have one full operating company (about 30 percent of the field technicians) up to speed on the integration of MobileFrame and Equip-Soft, their ERP system, by the end of 2013, with an aggressive push to complete across all five companies in 2014.

The technicians’ new tablets grab real-time updates from the ERP server as they are posted. If cell service or Wi-Fi coverage is not available (a fairly common occurrence on the road), the mobile device automatically synchronizes with the server again when reconnection is established. “This ability to still process information, without connectivity, is really important to us,” says Hauptmann.

The MobileFrame mobile app “is in itself not that difficult,” he says, “it’s the learning curve that is steep. Some of our technicians would not own a cellphone if the company didn’t make them, many don’t have a laptop at home.”

Not only do the technicians have access to email, and the ERP system, on their Windows 7 rugged tablet, they can access company portals for HR, online learning, and other uses. Even functions such as viewing the wiring diagrams of a piece of equipment, remotely, can now be done via their tablet.

Building in Metrics

“We are starting to build in some metrics, testing on productivity increases, customer satisfaction, and technician satisfaction,” says Hauptmann. “We want to know if, beyond their anxiety around new technology, is the mobile app helping to speed things up?” Further for benchmarking purposes, Equipment Depot is pulling WIPs from all its branches, and on the accounting side, they are measuring indicators such as, is there an increase or decrease in A/R aging .

User adoption, like with most technologies, is a hurdle they have moved through with the MobileFrame integration, says Hauptmann. Older technicians, who were at first very resistant to the switch away from paper and pen, “after a couple of days, they said ‘if I can do it, anyone can do it’… the newer adopters are rolling with it!”

An aspect that technicians may not like as much (but managers do) is that techs are now held more accountable since they must enter their own notes, which back office workers used to enter. “Today, what the techs type into the system, the customer sees.” In the back end of the Equipment Depot business – in the office, parts department and shop, labor time and parts ordering get entered automatically; replenishment is done online, not standing at a parts counter.

Going paperless, he adds, is not only more efficient, it’s better for the environment and reduces the cost of printing – the cost of paper, repair to printers, etc. “Each of our branches may print 2,000 to 3,000 sheets of PM forms.”

“Overall, the integration between MobileFrame and Equip-Soft works well,” Hauptmann says. “I’ve created a MobileFrame dashboard within my view of the ERP system.” And he’s got his work cut out for him with some 540 more field service technicians at Equipment Depot across North America to get up to speed on the new ways – the better ways – of mobility in the field.

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Heather Angus-Lee was a long-time trade magazine editor, now a writer for IndustryBuilt. She can be reached at heather.angus-lee@industrybuilt.com.